Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, famously remarked – “We are our choices”. Nothing else more aptly describes the importance of selecting an optional subject for the Civil Services (Mains) Examination. Let me walk you through what I suggest to aspirants at my institute, Officer’s IAS Academy, and elsewhere while choosing their optional subject.
Importance of optional
– Optional papers (Paper VI and Paper VII) of the Mains Examination carry 500 marks together which is almost 25% of the total marks (2025) of the written and personality tests put together. So, with so much weightage, the optional can be a deal maker or a deal breaker.
– If you’d have analysed the General Studies marks of a particular year’s topper and the person who’d scored the 100th rank, the range of their marks will not be at much variance. Toppers become toppers through their Optional subject and the Essay paper. These are the most controllable parts of the written Test. So to say, if you perform very well in these two areas, the chances of you becoming a topper are very high, if you fairly perform well in the General Studies part.
– Marks in the Optional paper decide whether or not you’ll get your Interview call, your dream service and your dream cadre.
Now having stressed upon the importance of Optional let me first tell you “How not to choose an optional” before suggesting how to choose one.
How not to choose an optional
1. Believing in the myth of the ‘Trend’
– People in civil service circles often say “This optional is trending now with UPSC. You better pick it up for you to be able to score good marks.”
– Some others say, “This optional is being taken up by too many people now. Don’t take it. The possibility of you scoring a good mark is less”
– Both these propositions are unscientific at best.
– In any given year if UPSC were to ‘favour’ one optional over the other, most of the toppers that year would have been people who picked that particular optional. This is clearly not the case. Even if coincidentally this were to happen, it is not because UPSC is ‘favouring’ one optional over the other.
– In any case, the knowledge that many of the toppers had picked the same optional subject is gained only after the exam results are finally published. This so called ‘trend’ changes from year to year, so what’s the use in going with it when you don’t know whether it will be ‘favoured’ again?
– The same logic applies to the negative trend of not picking an optional picked up by many aspirants.
– So never believe in the myth of the ‘trend’. It will get you nowhere.
2. Going with the flow
– Some people ‘go with flow’ i.e they choose their optional because their friend has chosen the same optional. Just for the ‘company’ they say.
– Some people go along the flow directed by the institutes they study in. Just ‘more convenient’ they say.
– Optional subject is like your spouse. You, personally have to adore, love, respect and be able to be with it for a long time (1 year minimum). ‘Arranged’ marriages don’t work here. It has to be a marriage of love. Your love.
The above two are the major criteria on which optional subject ‘should not be picked’. There are other myths to be busted regarding selection of optional subject. I’ll take it up some other day.
How to choose an optional (Step by step guide)
1. I’ve told you how important choosing an optional is and how it’s like your spouse. So before deciding upon your Optional subject you must be prepared to give at least 15 days.
2. Download the latest Civil Services Examination notification from UPSC’s website and take a print out of it.
3. Find the optional list in the notification. There is a list of 26 optional subjects.
4. Start by striking out the subjects you definitely know that you cannot take up. For example, if you are a Mechanical Engineering graduate there’s a high possibility that you may want to strike out Medical Science or Commerce and Accountancy.
5. While striking off subjects you should also consider your own aptitude for a particular subject. For example, if you are someone with a humanities background such as Philosophy, you may want to strike off a science based subject such as Physics or Chemistry
6. In any case, take a look at the detailed syllabus of the subject provided in the notification before striking off a particular subject.
7. As the choices become lesser, eliminate subjects with more care. Eliminate a subject only after being 100% sure that you cannot pick it up.
8. At the end of the above iterative process you should ideally be left with 2-3 optional subjects. Ideally, one of the subjects out of the three should be the subject you graduated in. For example if you have graduated as a doctor, then there is already enough reason for you to pick Medical Science as your optional subject. But for some reason if you don’t like the subject, you can pick allied subjects like Psychology or Zoology. I recommend that you pick a subject you graduated in, unless you have strong reasons to not do so.
9. It is also good to pick subjects which have more spread over other General Studies papers. That way your preparation can be holistic and will take lesser time. For example picking Geography, History or Political Science will help you in other papers.
10. Carefully consider the options by repeatedly going through the syllabus because all the 3 have an equal chance to be selected by you.
11. Next, make sure good source materials are available for the subjects selected. If any of the three falls short on this count, then that optional can be eliminated. Having good sources for the selected optional is a very important criterion. You do not want to be left scrambling for credible sources after zeroing upon an optional. For example literature of Dogri may or may not have sufficient sources.
12. The next important criterion to consider is whether the optional subject can be studied through self-preparation or requires additional guidance. If additional guidance is required, you need to check if there are any good mentors/teachers/institutes online or offline from whom/where you can seek guidance. If there is only offline guidance available, the question that you should ask yourself is whether it is accessible from / near by the place where you live. For example if you live in Chennai and good guidance is available offline only in Delhi, you might not want to consider selecting that optional.
13. Finally, go through previous years question papers of UPSC for the selected optional and make sure that the questions asked can be tackled through the sources/guidance that you have. If you think that the questions asked do not conform with your resources, either change the resources or consider a different optional.
14. After zeroing upon an optional, read the basic source book for the respective subject for at least a week. In a week’s time you’ll be able to clearly analyse your aptitude for the subject and whether or not you’ll be able to study it for a long time and repeatedly. If you are not comfortable with the subject please change it. Just because you’ve zeroed in upon it, you are under no compulsion to stay with it. You can move on to the other optional and follow the same process with it.
14. This is what I’ve been suggesting to my students and others and it has worked for them well. Hope it does so to you too!!
All the Best!